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Tips On Getting Letters of Recommendation


All college applications request a letter from your guidance counselor and usually expect 1 or more teacher recommendations.  Your counselor is predetermined but you get to choose who will write the teacher recs.  Please read to the end of this post to learn what to do if you are asked to write your own recommendation.

1. Most schools prefer that students ask for recommendations at the end of junior year so that teachers can take time to write thoughtfully over the summer.  If you school has other policies, be certain to follow them.

2. Who should you choose?  Ideally, the persons you approach should know you well.  Perhaps you’ve taken  more than one class with a favorite teacher or one of your current teachers is the advisor for a club or organization you belong to.  The more interaction  you’ve had, the more detailed the letter from the teacher can be.

3. Its helpful to write a note asking for the recommendation and to present the note to the teacher during a free period, before or after school.  If you have copies of assignments from the class you took with this teacher, you could offer them along with the note, or continue the conversation by mentioning how much you enjoyed, or struggled, or learned from the work.

4. Also give the teacher a list of colleges to which you are applying.  Know if there are special requirements for submitting the letters via Naviance, if you high school uses this tool.  If the letters will be submitted by mail, attach any forms and addressed, stamped envelopes.

5. Before school begins for senior year, check with the guidance office to make certain that all recommendations have been turned in.  Then write a thank you note to each person who wrote a recommendation.

What Should You Do If Asked To Write Your Own Recommendation?

I’m learning that self-written letters are becoming a common practice, particularly at large high schools.  Unfortunately, many counselors don’t know all the students in their cohort and use the self-written recommendations as guides (or just turn in the student’s work).  If you are asked to write such a letter here’s what to do.

1. Special circumstances.   Counselor recommendations are used to explain circumstances not in evidence elsewhere in the documentation.  When a family experienced trauma, death, financial hardship, student academic problems, learning challenges or any other factor affecting the student’s performance, it is usually the counselor who offers the information.   If this applies to you, write this part of your story.  First, the circumstance (what happened); next, how you were affected; the current state of your recovery or accommodation.

For instance, in 11th grade you were found to have dyslexia; what treatment has occurred and how have your grades improved?  Ex 2, Your parents experienced a messy divorce and you were unable to focus on academics; what has changed and how are you coping?

2. Your Achievements.  Take out your resume and activity lists.  The format you should have used to create both is: List the organization, dates participated, what you did and how it benefited the club.  Ex. French Club, 3 years, As program chair started a French club at an elementary school; increased membership by 20%.  Ex. International Club, 3 years.  Facilitated the smooth running of meetings by setting up, arranging refreshments, cleaning up.

Don’t just copy your Resume or Activities List, choose a few items and amplify what you’ve written, including the importance to you of this activity or event, something you particularly enjoyed or learned, leadership role, how the experience might impact your college experience. Ex. Environmental Club.  I worked with local organizations and officials to clean up a trash from a creek.  I’ve learned about the world-wide clean water shortage and hope to take a trip to Africa where I can participate in a clean water project as well as taking courses in hydrologly in the geology department to learn more about water.

3. Executive functioning.  These skills include persistence, organization, time management, and so on.  You want to present the skills with supporting evidence. Ex. Persistent: failed 2 tests Algebra 2, got help from teacher and secured a tutor from National Honor Society.  Brought grade up to a C+.   If you are unclear on what to say, try asking teachers and classmates to describe you in 1 word, or in 3 words.  Use their comments to develop this section.

4. Goals.  What do you want to get out of your college experience?  Are you planning your coursework so you can study abroad?  Do you have plans to take specific courses to learn about a special interest?

When you’ve completed your recommendation, have several people you trust read it over.  Discuss it with your guidance counselor.

Asking for your letters of recommendation is good practice for getting a job.  You will need to know your strengths and who can best describe them to others.  Don’t gamble on getting winning testimonials, prepare the path for the people whom you will ask.  Be professional in your approach and show your appreciation generously.

Questions?  Call/text  me at 610-212-6679 or email stephanie@accessguidance.com